The biggest self-deceptions are that life has a “meaning” and that each of us is unique.
That’s a favorite quotation of my friend Kenyon Phillips from one of his idols, David Byrne (his other big idol, musically, at least, is Brian Eno).
Perhaps that quotation sounds bleak to you, but it’s not really. If life has no set meaning then we can imbue it with whatever meaning we like. We can point our own moral compass, seek our own destiny, live life as we think we should. That’s wonderful.
Not that Kenyon’s incapable of being bleak. He’s a warm, thoughtful, good-natured guy, but he has a pronounced dark side, and the lyrics to his music are full of pain and aggression and reflections on destructive, often masochistic relationships. He gets a kick out of that.
Philosophy was in order last night, as we were eating in what is possibly New York City’s most philosophical restaurant, Rouge Tomate.
The New York venue is Rouge Tomate’s second location. The first one was opened in Brussels in 2001 by Emmanuel Verstraeten, founded on a principle he made up called Sanitas Per Escam — which is Latin, no less, for “health through eating.”
From the web site (scroll down if you get bored):
SPE® is an innovative approach toward nutrition, transcending the idea of balanced eating to offer optimal nutrition that maintains, protects and strengthens the body.
In order to offer optimal nutrition, the SPE® approach revolves around three key elements:
Sourcing: selecting ingredients seasonally, locally, and with a focus on nutritional characteristics.
Preparation: using specific cooking techniques that preserve the integrity and nutritional qualities of the ingredients.
Enhancement: optimizing nutritional value by the synergy of product combination and menu diversity.
Okay, so it’s sourcing local, seasonal products and preparing dishes from them that keep nutrition in mind.
That’s nice. It’s kind of taken for granted in the cuisines of China, Japan and much of South Asia and Southeast Asia, so I don’t know that it’s particularly innovative.
I get skeptical any time someone tells me they’re doing something innovative. And the more words they use to describe what’s innovative about what they’re doing, the less innovative it usually is.
Still, it’s nice.
However, it’s worth noting that flavor and taste aren’t mentioned in the restaurant’s principles. Maybe Mr. Verstraeten thought it went without saying that the food should taste good, although anyone who has been subjected to “health food” knows that it shouldn’t go without saying, that for decades Americans claiming to proffer food that was good for you were so smug about its healthful qualities that they seemed uninterested in making it tasty.
I’d heard only good things about Rouge Tomate since it opened in October of 2008, though.
I’ve also had good interviews with Rainlove Lampariello (Rainlove, I know!), who’s in charge of the restaurant’s beverage program, and I’ve always enjoyed the work of its chef, Jeremy Bearman, whose food I last had when he was at Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco.
So it made sense for Kenyon and me to check the place out.
[update: it turns out that Rainlove’s not with Rouge Tomate anymore. Taking up the slack at the moment is executive sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, a very nice woman from the Loire region — which is where France’s most popular restaurant wines come from — who recently places third in the Best Sommelier of France competition; that’s the best a woman has ever done in that contest].
Kenyon’s a teatotalling vegetarian, so I like to take him to restaurants with strong non-alcoholic beverage programs and an emphasis on good produce. Those restaurants should be able to put their best feet forward with him.
Kenyon and I spoke of many things as we ate — I ate his amuse-bouche of salmon tartare and avocado, and the scallop mid-course that Jeremy sent out for us — such as Avatar, and Kenyon’s favorite parts of the Marquis de Sade.
And this is what we ate and drank:
Green Tornado: Green juice (tarragon, spinach, basil, butter lettuce and fennel), mint and lemon juice
French Daisy: Gin, bitters, lemon juice and huckleberry syrup topped with sparkling wine
Chickpea hummus with sweet peppers, house-cured olives and flatbread crisps
Peekytoe crab and celery root panna cotta with grapefruit, marcona almond and feuille de brique
2008 Nikolaihof “Hefeabzug” biodynamic Grüner Veltliner (Wachau, Austria)
House-made fettuccine with wild mushrooms, sunchoke, celery root, chervil and crispy onions
Alaskan black cod with winter bean stew, prosciutto, lacinato kale and Provençal oil
2006 Michel Lafarge “Raisins Dorés” biodynamic Bourgogne Aligoté (Burgundy, France)
Blood orange with pomegranate, black sesame and bourbon vanilla ice cream (although it seemed more like a semifreddo to me)
bittersweet mi-cuit: banana, molten chocolate cake and coffee ice cream
La Colombe Brazilian Bourbon Rainforest Alliance-certified French press coffee